Don Brown had a favorite joke he would tell Chris Hinton last year.
Michigan football's defensive coordinator would walk up to the then-freshman defensive tackle and ask: 'What would you rather be — a slug, or a bullet?'
The latter was the right answer in Brown's eyes.
"I want him to be a bullet," Brown said.
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As it stands, Hinton is getting closer to fulfilling Brown's wish. Brown has seen Hinton improve his short-area quickness and change of direction. And he isn't the only defensive lineman to have made a notable improvement.
"We’re so much better up front in the front seven," Brown said Wednesday afternoon during a Zoom call. "I think (defensive line) coach (Shaun) Nua has done a very good job of bringing the guys along. We're just deeper. We’ve got more guys to choose from. You’ll see that. Depth is good. Knowledge is good."
That stands in complete contrast to last fall. Then, the Wolverines had two star ends in Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye, who played the vast majority of the snaps and were both productive. Carlo Kemp, meanwhile, was the top interior defensive lineman.
But after them, the unit was erratic. Former fullback Ben Mason saw time at defensive tackle. Hinton, a true freshman, got some playing time. But the Wolverines struggled to find any other reliable contributors. Meanwhile, hybrid linebacker Josh Uche was hard to keep off the field, with his pass-rushing ability.
The end result: More three-man fronts than Brown had ever fielded before at U-M (he primarily utilized four-man fronts in his first three seasons). The defense was still solid, finishing No. 11 in defensive efficiency according to Bill Connelly's SP+ rankings. But Michigan's defensive line notably struggled with run defense in big games, especially against Wisconsin, Ohio State and Alabama.
Now, Brown believes he has more options.
Hutchinson, Paye and Kemp are all back and will be heavily relied upon just as they were last fall. But the unit is much deeper, thanks to the emergence of players like Hinton, sophomore defensive end Taylor Upshaw, sophomore defensive tackle Julius Welschof and junior defensive tackles Donovan Jeter and Jess Speight.
"Those guys in that grouping have made significant improvements," Brown said. "We’re probably eight to nine deep there. Last year, we counted on playing a lot more of our three-down packages, which we desperately needed to, due to the abilities of (Josh) Uche and lack of total depth numbers at the defensive line."
Brown had significant praise for each of Michigan's backup defensive linemen. Welschof is one of the most improved players up front. Upshaw, Brown says, is much bigger than one year ago "but can still run." Speight is a "reliable guy," while Jeter has been a "flat-out different dude" and "exceeded all expectations."
He has also seen improvement from the veterans.
“(Kemp) really knows his craft," Brown said. "I think he’s at a perfect weight. He’s probably what some people would say is little bit light. He’s 282, 283. But really understands blocks. We all tease him, he’s got short arms but he’s got quick hands and uses them to his advantage. He knows how to penetrate an offensive line. He understands puncture principles.
"The bottom line is, that guy has made himself a better football player every year. To the point now where we’re just excited to let him go out and do his deal. I think he’s much more disruptive than he’s been in the past in terms of the puncture piece. Between him, Chris Hinton and Jeter, we feel really good about our inside three. We really feel good about the inside of our defense.”
Only time will tell if the Wolverines truly are stouter up front than they were last fall. Based on what he's seen throughout the offseason, though, Brown seems to think they are.
"I’m really happy with where we are defensive line wise," Brown said. "Feel good about it.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan football's defensive line could be deeper, better in 2020